About the book
"Wanting him was never part of my plan. But he woke a fire of desire inside me..."
Forced to travel to the Far East to escape the mistakes of his teenagehood, Charles Dowding, Earl of Wintervale, is ready to reclaim his old life back. A plan that backfires when he stumbles across the one part of his past he still hasn’t come to terms with: Lady Lydia and her devilish ways.
The biggest scandal of the Season was the last place Lady Lydia Agar ever wanted to find herself in the middle of. With her marriage options dwindling, she is forced to accept a most unlikely courtship: a man she loves and hates in equal measure.
Forced together out of pure misfortune, a fire they thought extinguished is reignited from its ashes. A flame that threatens to burn them and everything they have worked for when Lydia goes missing, leaving behind nothing but a letter. For the lion does not apologize to the sheep for being at the top of the food chain. They accept their role and have a feast.
The handsomely dressed crowd of girls danced gaily around the Christmastide table that boasted an array of delectable festive fancies as they sang at Whitehall Manor. Their giddy yet elegant laughter danced around the room as they did. Their fine, swirling dress skirts rotated over the marble floor.
“Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,
Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,
Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,
Oranges and Lemmons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clemens,
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,
When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,
When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Paul’s!”
Every Christmas season, Whitehall Manor delivered the most wonderful of parties, attracting a shimmering array of noble invitees. Lydia Agar watched the joviality unfold as the sweet, smoky smell of the crackling Yule log filled the parlor room as the flames devoured it in the ornate hearth.
Usually, Lydia would join in the festivities, but this year, her circumstances rendered her unwilling to move from the safety of her quiet corner. She felt content to admire the flutter of hair ribbons and swirl of long dresses as their noble wearers danced and delighted, accompanied by the sticky-sweet aroma of earthy pine sap and the moreish scent of fresh plum pudding that drifted from the buffet table.
“Well, if it isn’t Lady Lydia Agar…” a deep, velvet voice ejected from her unsuspecting left-hand side, causing her to jump as she was roused from her peaceful observations. She turned with haste to see an unexpected, familiar face.
“Charles Dowding, I am but dreaming! That cannot possibly be you standing before me!” Lydia gasped as she addressed the handsome Earl, whom she had not laid eyes upon for many years. Although, she did not remember him being this handsome. Many moons had passed since their emotional farewell, and he had become quite the man, with long brown hair slicked back to reveal a pair of dark brown eyes and an aquiline nose. He looked like he had stepped right out of a Grecian carving. Lydia felt her heart begin to flutter but blamed that on too many helpings of the Wassail Bowl.
“If you think you are dreaming, let me pinch you awake,” Charles teased, motioning his hand playfully toward her left arm, miming nipping her. She laughed and slapped his hand away impishly She felt like a child again in his pleasant company.
“What brings you back to London, Charles? Or, I suppose I should call you My Lord… It’s been years!” Lydia said, renewed with a vigor and excitement that she had not worn for many weeks, not since her parents had delivered the unwanted news that rendered her so solemn at this year’s ball.
“Oh no, you must call me Charles, for you are still my dear friend after all of this time, Lady Lydia. Father finally emancipated me from my duties in the Far East; it seems he requires help with his business. So here I am. I have moved back into Wintervale Manor.”
Wintervale. Just the mention of the name flooded Lydia’s mind with charming memories of their childhood friendship, where they had played on the rocky moorlands until dark, studying all manner of flora and fauna, and had filled many joyous hours reading books from the Earl’s magnificent collection of world literature.
She had almost forgotten the sweetheart that Charles had been to her for all of those years and that, when she was just fifteen years old, they had promised to marry one another when they were grown. That was ten years ago and had faded into one pleasant reminiscent dream-scape in Lydia’s mind.
“Then you must call me Lydia. For as children, we were never concerned with the airs and graces. What wonderful news. I suppose you’re frightfully cold?” Lydia laughed, attempting to conceal her growing attraction to her reunited childhood sweetheart.
“Perishing. I have three pairs of long johns underneath my shirt,” he sassed. Charles still possessed the power to make Lydia silly with laughter; her button nose creased with girlish laughter as she crumpled into a much smaller shape than her already petite frame and giggled into her hands, her glossy brown hair shaking over her rosy face.
Lydia composed herself and familiarized herself with the shirt that he had just mentioned. He was dressed most finely in an embroidered cotton undercoat and deep blue waistcoat that accentuated his deep, chestnut eyes. A pair of high-waisted black trousers and matching boots made him look most put-together, and much unlike the rugged and mischievous child she had once known.
Additionally, Lydia could not help but notice that his body was changed; it seemed his time in the Far East had blessed him with the most captivating golden tan and had developed his physique to a most masculine form. His shoulders were wide and his hips were narrow, creating a pleasing V-shape that complimented his tall stature. Lydia’s eyes flirted with his physique shamefully.
Lydia’s mind rushed back to her dismay at fifteen, when news that Charles’s father, the Earl of Wintervale, had sent his eighteen-year-old son away on account of his unruly behavior. She did not blame Charles for his acting out, for his Father had never been present; the Earl was scarcely seen at Wintervale Manor on account of his business and Charles did have a substantial Father figure to guide him. This of course, gave Lydia and Charles free rein of the Manor with his easy-going mother and the plethora of child-adoring staff. They were scarcely disciplined as they stormed the corridors and explored the many handsome levels of the magnificent mansion.
“Oh, what fun we used to have, Charles. I suppose there is much to catch up on.” Lydia removed herself from reminiscing, addressing her old friend with warmth, for his surprising arrival had made her evening.
“Indeed. Why don’t you join me on my mission to the Wassail Bowl? The spiced concoction is calling to me like a siren to a sailor, and I am rather thirsty from all this chatter. I am not used to speaking much, most of my friends were not versed in English, and I fear my brain has decayed during my late years. I might bore you to death now,” Charles replied with a strange fusion of jest and earnest.
Lydia doubted that he could bore her. She was most delighted to gaze at his handsomeness and hear his stories; it served as a welcome distraction from her own misery.
Charles seemed to retain the same sparkle in his eye that captivated Lydia throughout their youth. However, something seemed to weigh upon him. His eyes seemed deeper and heavier, making him seem so much more mysterious than the impish, chestnut-eyed boy that she once knew. She wanted to know more about him.
As the pretty pair leisured over to the giant silver bowl that held a huge measure of mulled cider, they discussed a myriad of things that their years apart had denied them.
“How are your darling parents, His and Her Grace of Tidewell, Lydia? I do hope that they have joined you at the Christmas Ball,” Charles chimed as he poured himself a generous measure of mulled cider from the embossed silver ladle, not forgetting to top up Lydia’s glass as well.
“Of course. They are over by the fireplace with little Lilly and Rupert; you know how they love children. They don’t often see my cousins,” Lydia replied, pointing to the glowing hearth across the huge marble hall where the distant figures of her parents could be seen delighting in the company of the small people.
Charles’s attention was called to the increasing volume and frivolity of the group of dancing guests that had now coupled up with partners to rejoice in a festive country dance.
Silky dress skirts twirled around and created a dazzling array of domes across the dance floor, and the tap of gentlemen’s boots rung across the Parlor. Charles asked Lydia to join them with his eyes alone, giving her a suggestive smirk that she knew so well. Lydia nodded and they placed their fresh drinks down on the table, joining hands to dance together in their reunion.
Lydia and Charles smiled as they began their dancefloor flirtation, their warm hands clasped together for the first time in ten years as they shyly grinned. Lydia’s heart started to flutter as they sailed across the marble floor, eyes locked together. She let herself study his deep, oaky-brown eyes that addressed her directly as they flowed in harmony. He was so much more handsome than she remembered; his tan was so alien to her, for the smog of London scarcely allowed the skin to brown. Charles now seemed strange, forbidden, and exotic, and the pressure of his hand upon her waist made her feel dizzy.
“Have you not blessed your parents with any children of your own yet?” Charles’s deep eyes seemed to quiz Lydia about the years he had missed as they traversed the hall, feeling safely camouflaged by the other couples.
“No,” she replied, her joy suddenly blunted. An uncomfortable pause of silence ensued.
Charles danced for a few moments, abiding her sudden furtiveness, but it was not long before he cut through the silence with an awkward cough and a welcome statement. “Well, I will have you know that I remain a bachelor as ever.”
Lydia felt guilty for feeling relieved that Charles had not married overseas, for she could not help but feel jealous at the thought of her childhood sweetheart infatuated with someone distant and exotic. She knew that she had no right to feel this way; their romance had to end when he was shipped against his will to the far reaches of Asia. Still, Lydia did feel overwhelmed by how handsomely her childhood love had matured and by how she still felt something for him after those long years apart.
Suddenly, Lydia felt the queerest sensation run through her. It felt as though she was being watched in the busy, dancing crowd; something strange and unknown made her blood run cold for a moment as she looked around the Parlor frantically.
“Are you alright? You look as though you are searching for someone,” Charles enquired with sympathetic brown eyes.
Feeling silly, Lydia shook off her strange sense. “Oh, yes. I’m quite well. I just felt a sense of something queer.”
“Thank goodness. I thought you may be so distressed with my dancing skills that you were calling for aid,” Charles scoffed.
Lydia giggled, fighting the unsettling tugging sensation that sat at the bottom of her gut that called her to look around for its source. It was as though a ghost was looming over her.
They finished their short dance in silence and then walked back to reclaim their glasses. Lydia was confused by the fusion of breathless excitement that dancing with Charles had cast over her, combined with the discomfort of revealing her life to him. She was still haunted by the strange sense of foreboding that had gripped her during the dance, but decided to forget it for want of a good evening.
Lydia and Charles enjoyed each other’s company as they walked away from the refreshment table. Charles had helped himself to a portion of cold cut turkey and cranberry sauce on a china plate, as he had arrived from a long journey and his stomach was growling with a travel-weary hunger.
“I wonder how many of my friends have changed their second name since we parted all of those years ago?” he mused. It was clear that he was trying to ascertain whether she remained unclaimed but was skirting around it with poetic allegory whilst he chewed on the choice morsels. Lydia noticed how refined Charles had become as he ate neatly, as opposed to stuffing his face the way he used to when they were young.
“Percy was married a few weeks ago, to little Agnes who used to chase the pheasants on the family hunting days. Rebecca and Anne were both married at the start of the winter, with the quaintest snowy and decadent weddings. It is a shame that you missed it,” she went on, distracting herself from the way Charles’s lips moved slowly as he ate; she was starting to wish that it was her neck he would nibble on. She was also trying to avoid discussing her own bitter betrothal.
Charles sensed Lydia’s trepidation and withdrawal.
“What of yourself, Lydia?” Charles made it impossible for her to avoid disclosing her own situation.
“I am not married… yet,” she replied, her eyes drawn downwards, seeming suddenly interested in her lilac ballgown.
“Who is the lucky fellow? You must tell me!” Charles persisted.
“No one that you know, I suppose. I shouldn’t like to talk about it,” she sighed, avoiding his questioning and bewitching gaze.
“Why don’t we find a quiet place to discuss this? I still know you well enough to know when you have something on your mind. Perhaps I could lend a listening ear?” Charles assured, seeming to remember the girl’s idiosyncrasies. Lydia couldn’t help but feel drawn to speak to him alone and unheard by prying, party-going ears.
“Yes, that would be lovely; but in secret. For if they see us leave together, that would appear most uncouth. You know how gossip spreads. Meet me in the gardens in five minutes,” Lydia whispered, finally addressing the Earl eye-to-eye and feeling invigorated by their childlike spirit of secretive mischief, the spirit that drew them so close all those years ago.
Charles nodded as he sipped from his glistening glass. He perched upon a chair to see the minutes through as Lydia made her escape from judging ears. She felt such a keen tingle of her childhood self that was shimmering under the surface, a brave voice that she had tried to silence for many years, especially since Charles left her behind at Tidewell Manor. The last few years had been dedicated to her practice of being a lady, the daughter of a duke who was to marry well and make her doting parents proud, whether she wanted to or not. Lydia was certain that her parents would not approve of her mentally undressing Charles, imagining his worshipping the nape of her neck with his regal lips, or stroking his manhood with her hands.
Charles sat in the company of his spiced cider for a few minutes, until he was sure that his departure from the hall would not be linked with Lydia’s. Of course, his intentions with his old friend were pure, but he could not risk disgracing her honor or his own by encouraging the birth of potential rumors. Talk spreads so easily throughout noble families. I will nurse my glass for a while longer.
Although Charles would not admit it, he relished the chance to be alone with his thoughts. Seeing Lydia again had bought such a cocktail of emotions and memories rushing back into his mind, not to mention a burning attraction. He had not failed to notice how she had matured; her blue eyes were as sapphire-like as ever, her button nose was still adorable but now she carried a more matured sex appeal that he could not ignore.
He sank into his chair and admired the ornate strands of green holly and ivy that were finely woven into garlands and handsomely coiled around wreaths with a flurry of wintery, Christmas berries, crimped red ribbon, and gold string. He felt most glad to be back in London, enjoying all of its traditions once again.
Charles indulged in the crumbly, sugar-dusted pastry of a mince pie on his silver plate. His time in Asia had educated his palette with all manner of fine spices: ginger, cardamom, and chest-warming chili, but still, his English heart could not be turned away from hearty, gravy-soaked British cuisine.
“Charles Dowding?” A questioning voice awoke Charles from his musings. He turned his head to see yet another familiar face at the Ball. It was William Aelkins, a childhood friend that he had not seen since his youth.
“My God, William!” Charles exclaimed with pleasant surprise. “I have scarcely been here an hour and I am reunited with so many dear faces.” He was filled with nostalgia by the sight of the familiar brown eyes, thin, serious mouth and wavy, blond hair that he remembered.
“It’s wonderful to see you home and looking so well. What a suntan you are wearing. The girls must fall at your feet,” William announced with his strange, dry humor. Charles had not forgotten the way that William spoke; he was hard to read as he always seemed so serious, even when he was jesting. Still, he was overjoyed to see his old friend.
“Quite the opposite. They turn and run away,” Charles joked. “How have you been keeping all of these years as the Marquess of Leham?”
“Very well, Charles. I still live at Leham Manor with my parents, and I am not married. You must have had many adventures commanding the tealeaf business. Have you not bought back a wife?” William enquired.
“Oh, yes to adventures, but no to a wife. I am a comfortable bachelor. Look at both of us, eight-and-twenty and still roaming as free stags.” Charles laughed, drawing his gaze up to the mahogany clock and realizing that Lydia would be missing him in the gardens. “I will catch up with you later, William. I must make a visit to the gardens for a breath of fresh air,” he lied, feeling guilty since he was an honest person, but one who was forced to make efforts to get away.
“Oh, of course. Before you go, you wouldn’t have happened to see Lady Lydia of Tidewell, would you?” William added before Charles could slip away. Charles did not know if this was some strange test or a genuine question.
“Well, His Grace is over by the fire there,” Charles replied and pointed to Lydia’s Father.
“Yes, but His Grace is not to be enjoyed in a fine Ball gown. I should like to catch a glimpse of his daughter, if you understand me… She fills her dress most enticingly these days. The Earl is a lucky man,” William whispered with a slight curling in the right corner of his thin lips. Charles cringed at his friend’s lechery.
“You might have forgotten, but Lady Lydia has remained a dear friend to me, William, so perhaps you should keep your lustful thoughts to yourself,” Charles replied earnestly, feeling the need to assert his displeasure at his friend’s perversion. He also felt perturbed the mention of the mysterious ‘Earl.’
“Oh, I apologize. I thought you might have outgrown your sweetness on her by now,” William teased with his disconcerting sedateness. Charles felt uncomfortably exposed by his old friend, who seemed most changed from his youth.
“It’s just a matter of respect, William. I don’t mean you any offence. We will speak later,” Charles retorted, disliking what he was seeing in William. The disgruntled Earl nodded his head to give his goodbyes and left the room to finally find Lydia, whom he feared might be growing bored of waiting.
Charles wondered if Lydia might disclose who the mysterious Earl was, and why she seemed so disheartened by her situation. He remembered when they were young and wrapped up in juvenile affection; how they had promised themselves to each other when the time came. He felt childish for holding on to such whimsy, and even more so for feeling saddened by William’s mention of an Earl to whom, he suspected, she must be promised.
Little did Charles know the misery that awaited Lydia. He just had to meet her in the garden to find out.
As Charles stepped out of the ornate glass doors that were illuminated by wall-mounted candles, his eyes scanned the garden for Lydia, for her ocean blue eyes and the soft brown waves that tumbled over her lilac bodice. A maze of hawthorn hedges hid her from view, so he began his search through the lonely yard.
The muted bustle of guests dancing and chattering inside the Manor hummed through the dark night as the cold winter breeze played over his face, sending his thick, brown locks dancing over his handsome brow as he surveyed the maze. The evening was maturing, casting a black and purple dusk over the horizon which compromised his hunt for Lydia. Charles indulged in the keen nip of the winter air, nestling into his gloves and scarf, and walking through the white dustings of snow on a search for his pretty friend.
“Charles!” Lydia’s velvety voice emerged from the distance, and he followed the welcome sound deeper into the maze until he met with her. There she stood, beside the moonlit rose garden, gazing at the flowerless stems adorned with juicy crimson rosehips.
Lydia’s silky lilac skirt reflected like an opal in the early moonlight and dazzled Charles’s dark eyes; it was as though he had stepped right into a dream. She nestled into her white mink shawl that sat charmingly over her shoulders, hiding from the perishing air. The milk-white fur highlighted the porcelain clarity of her pale skin. She looked like a china doll of the expensive variety that Charles saw sitting on the window sills of toy maker’s in the Far East.
“There you are! I thought I would have to search all night,” Charles exclaimed.
“I’m afraid I was tempted by the rose garden and it’s fruit. Do you remember the rosehip syrup we used to steal from the pantry at Wintervale? Sally used to tell us off because it was reserved for the cold and flu season, but we would drink it straight from the bottle!” Lydia laughed, delighting in their memories of childhood mischief once again.
Charles laughed coyly, stroking his tousled tresses back from his forehead after the cold wind had its way with them. “Of course I remember. We enjoyed many a giddy afternoon fueled by ungodly portions of sweets. I should suspect that Sally would delight in seeing you, you have grown so much,” he replied, speaking on behalf of his dear head housekeeper.
“Oh, Sally, I would love to see her again. She was always an angel. I still have the organza fairy wings that she sewed for me for the Christmas ball tucked up safely in my box of keepsakes. Is she still head of the female staff at Wintervale?” Lydia asked. Her voice was crisp yet melodic like the wind chimes that had captivated Charles as they hung from the doorframes of inns and eateries on his travels.
“I remember the very wings! I bet you wear them still, don’t you? You prance around the blackberry bushes and toadstools like the fairy you always were! Yes, Sally is still leading the pack, and very adeptly too,” Charles replied, familiarizing his eyes with her shape; he could see what William was referring to when he mentioned how Lydia’s body filled her dress.
Her snaky hips were highlighted by the tight amethyst, waist-hugging corset that peeked from behind her mink coat. Her brunette waves were tamed by two violet ribbons that fluttered like two butterflies courting in the summer breeze. She dazzled Charles under the moonlight, though he did not let it show.
“They would not fit me now. I hoped to pass them onto a daughter, should I ever have one.” Lydia smiled, her azure irises shimmering in the silvery moonlight as it danced through the gaps in the grey winter cloud. Charles was reminded of the question that had not yet been answered.
“Perhaps you and this Earl that I have heard so little about will have a daughter?” Charles decided to be direct, determined to draw the secrets she was keeping out from her sweet mouth.
“Ah, so you have heard the news.” Lydia sighed, suddenly removed from her giddiness.
“It was mentioned just now, inside, by an old friend of mine. Talk to me about it, Lydia. Are you not excited to be married?” Charles insisted with approachable sympathy; his dark eyes reflected the silhouettes of the pine trees surrounding the Manor.
“Lord Bainbridge of Kensington has shown interest in me since I was nineteen. My parents resisted taking him up on his offer for years, as they wanted me to find someone by myself, whom I loved. When I reached five-and-twenty with no interest in a man, my parents thought agreeing to his proposals would be the best thing for me. I know that they want me to be happy and cared for by a fine suitor, and I love them for it, I just cannot summon any happiness about the matter.”
“Why are you not happy to be married to this man?”
“I do not know him. They think me a radical for wanting to marry for love, not for money, land, or security,” Lydia retorted, sounding bitter in spite of her appreciation for her doting parents.
“I have known many doubtful couples that have grown into love after such an arrangement,” Charles said, offering reassurance to the sad girl, but he quickly sensed that it was futile.
“Charles, you don’t understand. My friends have heard that he is not the gentle and honest earl that he appears to be. There are rumors about him that worry me,” Lydia stated with wide, urgent, and sad eyes.
“I have never heard of Lord Bainbridge. If he is not the man that you deserve, you must let your parents know. You do not have to go through with it. You deserve happiness, my dear Lydia,” Charles said, looking into her blue eyes directly as the pair stood in the dusky rose garden.
“You are right, but I want to please them, for I am their only child, and I want to marry and sire heirs. You know how they love children. I often feel racked with guilt for not blessing them with grandchildren of their own by five-and-twenty” She sighed, staring into the darkening horizon, her long, dark eyelashes highlighting her vivid blue irises.
Charles felt a rush of sympathy for his dear friend, for he could see she was about to sign her life away unhappily, to please everyone but herself. “What of your happiness, Lydia?” he enquired, focusing on her intently. He watched as her fingers twiddled together and she began to click her long, feminine nails against each other, something that she always did when she was nervous.
“I suppose I never happened across someone I wanted to marry. Well, not since…” Lydia paused mid-sentence and remained masked in quiet contemplation for a few moments.
“Since our promise.” Charles decided to pierce the silence with some sincerity, knowing exactly what she meant.
“You remember our promise? I thought you would surely have forgotten after all of these years. She seemed flattered and suddenly coy, and avoided meeting his eyes.
“Well, of course not. You should know that I have missed you, Lydia. I did not leave willingly all those years ago.”
He has missed me… Lydia felt considerably giddied by Charles’s unexpected directness; it made her heart flutter. Of course, she had missed him too, and had never met anyone with even a portion of the unique, carefree charm that he possessed. He had always been forward and a breath of fresh air among the noble families that so often felt restrained and heavy with formality. Of course, that was part of the reason he was sent away.
“You were sent away because you were a wayward imp,” Lydia laughed, alleviating some of her flustered, self-consciousness with gutsy humor. “I blame you entirely.”
“And proud of it I was.” Charles winked, which sent a rush of flirtatious energy slinking down her spine. She had not felt this way for years, and regardless of the fact that she knew it was wrong, she enjoyed it greatly. “You won’t say it, will you?” Charles added with his boyish grin, shaking his head knowingly so that his brown waves rolled in the wind that was growing colder by the second.
“Say what, Charles?” Lydia decided to play the fool, enjoying the game of flirtation that seemed to be developing between them.
“That you have missed me too!” He smirked, taunting her in her feigned ignorance.
Their eyes met and held for a short while as they stood surrounded by the stems, thorns, and dusky darkness. Lydia smiled, delighting in the charm of his forwardness and the potency of his playful humor.
“I have missed you almost as much as I have missed the beatings from Miss Ingram when I mispronounced my French as a girl,” Lydia sassed.
Charles’s mouth fell agape, clearly charmed and enflamed by her gutsiness. Their playful flirtation was pulsing through them now, like voltages of electricity that they had both forgotten over the years apart. Lydia felt the tension blooming in her body and streaming through her veins; how strange it was that, standing in this cold, dark rose garden, it felt as if no years had passed at all. It felt like they were teenagers again, rambling over the moors and joking in their affectionate, bantering humor; how she had missed it.
“Very well. I can see that you have forgotten me entirely; after all, I was nothing but a brutish imp, as you say,” Charles mocked, feigning a grieving expression as he adopted puppy-dog eyes and looked down at the frosty, sandstone slabs that lay beneath their feet. Lydia knew his game, but decided to play along so that the truth could be spoken.
“Of course I missed you, Charles. I was distraught when you left London. You were always my best friend.” Lydia smiled demurely.
The tone between the pair seemed to change suddenly, morphing from juvenile play to something more sincere, solemn, and earnest.
“You know, Lydia, it was not easy for me leaving the Manor and all that I knew. It took me a long time to forgive Father for sending me away. I sense that it destroyed my mother. I don’t think she’s ever recovered from it,” Charles stated soberly as he studied the early moon.
“Have you recovered from it?” Lydia enquired. She had the gift of giving someone her full attention, letting her sapphire eyes comfort them.
“Honestly? I’m not sure. The Far East has certainly taught me lessons in self-discipline, gifted me with tolerance, and given me a greater understanding of a world outside of my own. I have seen so many wonderful sights that I am grateful for, in fact, that I thank my father for them. However, I was so plagued by lonesomeness; I sometimes would not speak with another Englishman for weeks at a time between shipments, so I took part in the simplest of pleasures, such as sharing a meal with a man to whom I could not speak my English mother-tongue, but only address with my eyes and a smile,” Charles mused to a present and interested Lydia.
“I can sense that you are much changed by your decade overseas, Charles. You seem so wise and so worldly,” she replied with reassuring resonance. “I was lonely too. I could not speak to anyone on the level that we always shared, and when you stopped answering my letters, I lost you completely.”
“Letters?” Charles’s brow suddenly drew down and crumpled up like a discarded letter. “I received no letters from you, not a single one.” He seemed confused and befuddled by the girl’s strange statement.
“You answered several of them, Charles! You must have forgotten.”
“Absolutely not. I hoped every day to hear from you, but I assumed you had forgotten me with haste when I received no word from you…” Charles frowned.
“Then… Who answered my letters?” Lydia could feel the honesty in Charles’s words; she was certain that he was telling the truth.
“I don’t know.” His frown had intensified with a dark confusion and suspicion, shadowed in the ever-growing darkness that now clung to them like a thick cloak.
The pair stood together in mutual concern for a few moments, communicating only with their eyes; focusing on her body, Lydia realized that she was now trembling in her battle against the winter air.
Her pink fingertips were numb, and her rosy cheeks and button nose were beginning to feel the sting in the sharp chill. Lydia observed Charles’s face as well as she could in the concealing darkness; she noticed that his aquiline nose and high cheek bones had also adopted a cold-kissed, fuchsia shade. It was certainly time to get warm and retire to the Manor.
“We should return to the party, for we are both cold and my absence may be noticed by now,” she declared, subdued and saddened by the strange, mysterious topic of their previous conversation.
Who would try to come between us that way? Who received my letters, and who replied?
Charles stood to attention, clearly rousing himself from his deep ponderings. “Yes. I am not yet adjusted to these perishing winds, as much as I have missed them. Let us make haste indoors to relieve ourselves with a pot of tea.” Charles smiled, attempting to navigate the conversation back to something palatable and pleasant before they retired from the cold and returned to the watchful eyes of the party guests. They both knew that they could not speak of such things indoors.
Lydia nodded and half-smiled at the handsome earl, but still felt weighted by the unsolved mystery of who would have intercepted their letters, why she had lost touch with her childhood sweetheart, and whether things would be different if they had retained their contact with one another during Charles’s years overseas.
As the pair traversed through the twists and turns of the hawthorn maze, Lydia’s left foot suddenly made contact with a rogue pebble that had absconded from the flower bed, causing her to topple over quickly; she let out a high-pitched yelp. Charles attempted to catch the girl as she descended to the sandstone tiles at great speed, but he also lost his battle with gravity. They met the floor in a heap.
The shocked pair lay crumpled against one another on the ground. Lydia felt Charles’s breath on her neck and was suddenly distracted from her bashed elbow. She had not been this close to him for ten years, since they shared a soul-shaking kiss in the privacy of the forest outside Wintervale Manor, just days before his unwilling departure.
Charles looked into her widened eyes for a moment; their bodies were pressed together and growing suddenly hot. Lydia noticed how hard his muscular stature was as his abdomen and chest pressed against her in those short seconds which seemed to stretch into hours. She could not help but admire the toned brawniness of his matured body. The pair of them were locked in a trance-like state for a few moments, drugged by a concoction of shock and excitement, slightly drunk on their sudden and unexpected physical contact.
They had scarcely had time to react when a horrified voice emerged from their right. “For shame!”
Lydia and Charles gasped in unison as they tuned their heads to see Countess Elizabeth, the wife of the Earl of Elmwood, pointing to the floored pair in dismay. She had come for some fresh air after dancing the night away when she came across the couple, who in the darkness appeared to be fornicating.
“My Lord, remove yourself from Lady Lydia at once!” Lady Elizabeth cried.
Lydia felt her body quickly fill with an acute panic and death-like dread as she scrambled to rise from the frosted ground. “My Lady, you misunderstand, we have merely fallen down!”
“You think I haven’t heard that one before? My goodness, Lydia, you are to be married! Married! Just wait until your poor father hears about this. I did not know you were such a vixen!” she replied vindictively, and then proceeded to shout for the aid of her husband. “Henry, Henry!”
Charles intervened as he, too, scrambled upwards, offering Lydia a hand to hold as she struggled to avoid tripping over her long, lilac skirt, but she did not accept it. “My Lady, you must try to understand. Lady Lydia and I toppled over just this second. I understand how it appears, but please try to be reasonable.”
Henry Pates emerged in a rush at the command of Elizabeth’s hurried, shrill words, looking frantically around the scene to conclude what the issue was. Lydia dusted off her skirt as she rose to her full height. Her heart pounding under her bodice that now felt considerably tighter as she fretted over the misunderstanding.
“What an earth is wrong, dear?” Henry demanded, placing his hands on Elizabeth’s shoulder as he addressed her with confusion.
“I have just happened across these two, copulating on this very floor!” she cried, her dramatics intensifying by the second.
“My Lord, please. Your wife misunderstood,” Charles said with a calm earnest.
“You should address her as ‘Lady,’ not ‘my wife.’ What were the pair of you doing out here without a chaperone? Oh, the indignity of it! I suppose you know that Lady Lydia is to be married to the Earl of Kensington? Does that mean nothing to you now that you have been sullied by the Far East?” the earl scolded the young man, who was quickly realizing that they were defenseless against these false accusations. Lord Pates seemed to match both his wife’s overreaction and her theatrical nature.
Lady Pates tutted at the pair and quickly turned around, making haste to the Manor where the party still hummed gaily inside. The silhouettes of guests dancing and rejoicing were visible through the orange glow of the candle-lit windows.
“Everyone shall know about this!” Elizabeth declared, enraged with anger and poisoned by tradition. The disgusted Earl of Elmwood shook his head with a deep, disapproving frown as he held out his hand to demand that Lydia take it. She did as instructed and took his chubby hand, looking over at Charles solemnly with her tearful sapphire eyes. Charles frowned as deeply at Henry Pates, as he watched the burly earl escort his misunderstood friend back to the Manor.
Charles was left alone in the cold darkness of the evening, angry, confused, and flustered by events that seemed to be sliding like sand through his grasp.
Charles knew that he must act fast and seek out Lydia’s parents before the hysterical Lord and Lady Pate did. They seemed to delight in theatricals and would most likely have no reservations toward defacing their honor.
He dodged through the mill of guests and dancing children toward the fireplace where he had last seen Lydia’s parents chatting gaily with their young kin; but they were nowhere to be found.
He scanned the room for their faces but drew a blank; he could not see Lydia either and sensed that the situation was growing graver by the second.
“My Lord!” An angry voice echoed across the hall. It was as though time slowed down as Charles turned his head in the direction of the voice and noticed the sea of disapproving faces that suddenly stuck to him like glue.
The voice rang through a strangely silenced crowd; it was clear that the news had spread like a forest fire on a dry July day in the forests of Thailand. The familiar face of Lydia’s father, the Duke of Tidewell, emerged from the crowd and was shortly followed by the grief-stricken face of her mother as they strode toward him.
“Your Grace, please listen… I–” Charles started, but was quickly interrupted by Peter Agar’s ballsy and agitated response.
“I do not care to listen to any excuse you have conjured up. My goodness, the first day back and you are causing trouble. I respect you as an earl, but I cannot respect you sullying my betrothed daughter. I thought she was your friend? How could you do this to our family?” His voice was fast and hard, and his words were difficult to keep up with.
“If you would just listen, there has been a misunderstanding,” Charles pleaded with desperate eyes.
“Oh, there has been a misunderstanding alright. You have come back from who-knows-what land a savage, and you have ‘misunderstood’ our proper English customs,” Peter scoffed, his brow furrowed in rage.
“No, Your Grace, I–” Charles did not manage to speak a single sentence before he was hounded into silence once again by the ignorant duke.
“I’m sure you could fornicate with whomever you pleased in the East but my daughter is not a common concubine!” he hissed in a whispered yet aggressive tone, stroking his balding brown hair back in a fluster.
Charles was at a loss; he felt deeply hurt and offended by Peter’s cruel venom and prejudice, but knew that no rhyme or reason could subdue Lydia’s father’s rage.
“Please, Your Grace, I do not think of Lady Lydia as such. Let me fix this situation.”
“Fix it how? What are you going to do? Marry her, My Lord?” Harriet Agar spat, suddenly making herself known. She was as equally irked as her husband and addressed him with similar venom.
Harriet’s cheeks were a deep shade of rouge that matched her fine red velvet dress, and her blue eyes were bloodshot and puffed from the tears that still rolled down her cheeks.
Charles’s heart was beating so hard that he thought the entire ballroom, where the gay bustle had reduced to a deathlike silence, could hear it beating under his silken waistcoat. Within a few seconds, he had uttered the words, rendering all of those around him shocked and left many mouths agape. “Yes, My Lady. I shall marry her.”
The Duke and Duchess stared at him for a long while in disbelief.
“That is not something to joke about, My Lord. I hope that you are serious.” Peter Agar addressed him threateningly, drawing closer to Charles as he stood tall and seemed sure of himself.
“I am serious, Your Grace. I shall marry Lydia,” Charles confirmed to the pair, whose faces seemed to soften slightly as they looked at each other.
Charles felt his chest compressing with a nervous excitement at the thought of Lydia being his, and he felt deep inside his heart that she would be happy about the change in plan. This was his way to save her from her miserable betrothal to Lord Bainbridge and the rumors of his cruelty... Of course, he would not admit that to her; she was too proud to hear it.
Charles was dragged from contemplation of his sudden yet exciting decision by Harriet Agar’s voice once again. “And what of Lydia’s choice in this? Have we forgotten that she is betrothed to Lord Bainbridge?” she squealed, addressing her husband with frantic uncertainty.
“That arrangement is as good as burnt to the ground after tonight, Harriet. Be reasonable. The Earl is a traditional man and will not want her now that her reputation is soiled, thanks to Charles here.” The Duke’s embittered eyes jabbed into Charles as he spoke of his sullied daughter. Harriet began to weep.
“It is the only way he can make it right, dear,” Peter assured her, putting his hand on her shoulder and looking upon Charles with scolding eyes. “I will hold you to your word. You will make this right.” He pointed to Charles with his free hand as Harriet cried, speckling his grey waistcoat with tear stains. “There, there, dear, we should not make more of a scene.”
Charles nodded and thought it best to leave the emotional couple to process the new and unexpected turn of events and recover from the shame. He thought that he could also benefit from some reflective space to calm his spinning head and his anger toward the voicelessness he had been subjected to. He wished that he could see Lydia but he knew that they could not be alone now until their wedding night – the thought of which made his heart stop beating in his golden brown, toned chest.
Charles had much to think about as he made his exit from the dramatic party and made his escape down the slippery, frosted paths; he had just agreed to marry his childhood best friend, and she did not yet know about it.
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